"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 6, 2018

In Praise Of The Irrational–A Life Without Thinking Is A Life Better Led

Most of us consider ourselves rational thinkers.  We know how to structure an argument, sift through relevant and extraneous material, and sort fact from fiction.  We come to conclusions only after having followed all promising leads and are sure that we have been thorough and exhaustive in our research.  Whether this rationality is expressed in preparing an academic thesis or deciding on which route to take to Boston, we feel competent that we are in intellectual control.  We feel we know how to correctly identify intervening variables, assess risk and probability, judge levels of accuracy and currency, and eliminate the extraneous. 

If things go wrong – accidents on the freeway, unexpected delays at the airport, a late discovery of documentation which casts doubt on critical documentary evidence – the primacy of logic is unchallenged.  Eventually and ultimately, thanks to electronic media, big data, and intelligent software, our ability to collect, analyze, correlate, and synthesize will increase a thousand fold.  Historical data on weather, flight status history, and traffic flow will enable ‘tight factoring’ and increasing the chances of desirable outcomes.  We will become even more logical.

Image result for images immanuel kant

his enhanced logical ability, we think, will be the key to social and economic progress.   The more information available on seismic shifts, climate variations, changes in air and sea currents, and atmospheric anomalies, the more cogent and persuasive the arguments for environmental action.  The more data generated on income distribution, correlates of race, geography, and population migration, the more appropriate the programs to address it. 

Thanks to modern electronic data generation and management every political decision on gun control, abortion, immigration, public investment, tax reform or any other current issue will be made based on increasingly reliable and valid information.  Irrelevant, subjective, emotional arguments will be tabled and dismissed.  Finally a truly progressive society – one which identifies obstacles to reform, isolates those factors which most contribute to success, and constructs well-ordered, fact-based arguments to prove a point and justify a movement -  can be realized.

While no one doubts the power of rational thinking, such power has been overestimated and overvalued.  While its application to mathematics, science, and economics has resulted in advanced technology, better population management, and a more efficient system of production, it has led nowhere when it comes to essential human behavior.  Human nature has not changed in the 200,000 years of homo sapiens. We are still as aggressive, self-interested, protective, territorial, and expansionist as ever before.  Decisions are made more in the amygdala and hypothalamus than in the frontal lobes. 

While we may think that those higher functions which distinguish us from the animals – cognition and logic – are what most define us, even a cursory look at history illustrates the same primitive nature we share with lower-order animals.  The Twentieth Century was as bloody and barbaric as any before.  There was no qualitative difference between Hitler and Stalin and Genghis Khan.  All three were imperial overlord who used brutal force, slaughter, and numbers to kill millions.  While neither Hitler nor Stalin could match Genghis Khan for his insatiable cruelty, indomitable will, and savagery – and therefore never succeeded in their dreams of world domination like Genghis Khan did – they were fundamentally the same.

Image result for images early homo sapiens

History goes through cycles of war and peace, but wars and their particular horrors always return.  The logic of war – strategy, weaponry, mobilization, offense, and defense – has no parallel in peace which has always been subjective, personal, and temporary. More logic is applied to the development of sophisticated weaponry than to the dynamics of peaceful settlement and compromise.  It is easier to conceive of and plan for military victory than it is to configure and international peace.  Such peace would mean an equalization of territorial rights, ethnic and religious claims, and the neutralization of autocracy.  Peace was not programmed within the human genome.  Violent aggression was.  Survival is a matter of domination not compromise and submission.

What is logic compared to genetic determinism?  Rational, objective thought implies that there is such a thing; but how can one assume objectivity when it is the individual configuration of the human genome which determines behavior? Nurture certainly plays a part, but those environmental influences have themselves been determined by genetic distribution.  The behavior of our family, our friends, and our relatives – the fundamental element of nurture – has been in turn shaped by genetic destiny.  We cannot avoid the consequences of a non-rational, non-logical upbringing.

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Recent studies have concluded what earlier scientists had always suspected – there is no such thing as objective perception.   Eyewitnesses see what they want to see or are programmed to see.  Memories themselves are largely ‘fill-ins’, scraps and bits of actual personal recollection curated and modified by the comments of others.  Uncle Harry never did drown the cat in the swimming pool but certainly could have.  Aunt Margaret was not the harridan recounted in dinner table conversations, but only willful, determined, and before her time. Parsing the intentions of international rivals is complicated by culture, personal history, and subjective assumptions.  Moreover, few international leaders are willing to grant the same ineluctable human nature that all share.  All are convinced that their particular intellect and intellectual brilliance and insight can overcome any challenge.  They can outthink anyone.

Given all this, it is surprising that a belief in logic and rationality remains unshaken, that our logical conclusions can be permanent, and that they are ultimate and final.

However, the cracks in the wall are starting to show. We have never lived in an age where logic matters so little.  An increasingly complex and indecipherable society makes objectivity and rational assessment almost impossible; so it is no surprise that many have given up the effort.  It is far simpler, less taxing, and much more satisfying to give in, to feel good, and to be quickly satisfied than to be lost in an impossibly variable world.   Fake news is not the big deal rationalists insist.  Hollywood fits better than Harvard; and Donald Trump is without a doubt the right man for these illogical times.

Image result for images trump

His supporters –at the cutting edge of the new anti-intellectual, impressionist revolution – have never had much truck with overthinking; and have always valued family, spiritual values, faith, and tradition more than figuring things out.  They have not rejected logic; they have never embraced it.  They have understood its futility without concluding it.  The two ends of the spectrum have finally done a Mobius loop – philosophy and gut reaction have met.  Metaphysicians have finally understood the predictability and permanence of historical cycles and given up on looking for ‘essentiality’, the nature of being.  The new popular new wave have never been happier although they are not sure why.  America has entered a new age, supported by an intellectual philosophical avant-garde, and promoted by ‘the people’.

The happiest – or at least most satisfied – are those who get both ends.  They appreciate the irony of anti-intellectualism but enjoy the fluidity of fiction and fantasy.    Once virtual reality has finally become the reality, all  pretensions of logic will disappear and none too soon.

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